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'Annexationist' Israeli government sworn in

Despite wranglings over ministerial positions, new government firmly on the hard-right of politics
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Likud Knesset member Ze'ev Elkin during a meeting at the parliament in Jerusalem (AFP)

Returning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalised the line-up of his new, hard-right government which is set to be sworn in by President Reuvin Rivlin late on Thursday, following a vote in the Knesset.

Due to the intense negotiations, Netanyahu was unable to present the final line-up of Israel's 34th government until several hours after his original 1600 GMT deadline.

The make-up of the new government is likely to alarm liberal observers across the globe, composed as it is of ultra-nationalists and conservative religious politicians, none of whom would appear to hold any serious commitment to resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

A set of guidelines produced on Wednesday notably contained no reference to the two-state solution, sparking concerns that Netanyahu's election night promise not to seek a Palestinian state might be kept.

Left-wing and “pro-peace” demonstrators from Women Wage Peace marched on the Knesset on Thursday, criticising the make-up of the government, which they see as resolutely hawkish on the Palestinian issue.

The government will consist of Netanyahu's Likud party, which won 30 seats in March's election, the centre-right Kulanu (which won 10 seats), far-right Jewish Home (eight) and two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas (seven) and United Torah Judaism (six). With 61 seats, Netanyahu will govern with a small majority and laws can be easily scuppered by MK rebellions.

Building the coalition has not been easy for Netanyahu, with one commentator describing the scrabble for positions as “utter chaos".

Members of Netanyahu's Likud party have reportedly been angry at the number of departments given to coalition partners. Fifteen Likud MKs have been vying for 12 ministerial positions.

"No Likud MK will try to topple the government because of a position he hasn't received," a senior Likud official told Haaretz. "They will obviously be disappointed, but Netanyahu has the right tools to compensate them. He can also give them the title of deputy prime minister . . . or deputy minister without appointing a minister above them."

Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator for European Council on Foreign Relations' Middle East and North Africa Programme, told Middle East Eye that much of the disgruntlement of Likudniks would ultimately blow over.

"I think from the point of view of Netanyahu, it's very much Netanyahu who won the election and not Likud," Lovatt said. "So I think he kind of feels that he has quite a bit of margin to assert to himself and that he doesn't owe too much to the other Likud members and while they may huff and puff, they will go along with it."

Diplomatic tensions

One potentially controversial appointments has been Tzipi Hotovely – a Likudnik seen as being on the hard right of the party – as deputy foreign minister.

Netanyahu decided not to distribute the Foreign Minister portfolio, taking on the responsibilities himself.

Lovatt suggested that Netanyahu's decision to take on the Foreign Ministry portfolio himself meant that it could be a card that could be played in future to shake up the coalition - possibly by offering it to Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, who lost the election as part of the Zionist Union coalition.

"Obviously it's a good fig leaf - if he comes under a lot of pressure he can take Herzog in and make him foreign minister, let Herzog take some of the heat off Netanyahu himself when it comes to the Palestinian file, the same way that Tzipi Livni did in the previous government," he said.

Meanwhile, without a minister appointed above her - after the position was vacated by Avigdor Lieberman earlier this month - Hotovely becomes Israel's most senior diplomat, after Netanyahu himself.

A religious Zionist, she had previously sparked controversy for describing the Israel-Palestine conflict as primarily religiously-driven.

"This is a religious battle led by Islam,” she said, speaking on Fox News' Glenn Beck programme. "It's important that we stand behind a historical truth: we're not just here because of Zionism, but because of the Bible."

She is also a supporter of a one-state solution in Israel – and granting voting rights to Palestinians in the West Bank – which is likely to heighten tensions at diplomatic meetings with western leaders, who overwhelmingly back two states.

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz will retain the transport portfolio, and will also receive the intelligence portfolio, while Moshe Ya'alon will remain defence minister.

The Prime Minister will also take on the communications portfolio while Likud MK Ofir Akunis will serve as a minister within the Communications Ministry.

MK Yuval Steinitz is to become minister of energy and infrastructure, and will also have a seat in the security cabinet.

MK Miri Regev – a former Israeli army spokesperson who called Sudanese immigrants "a cancer in our body" – is to be given the Culture and Sport Ministry.

The final two allocations prior to the vote were MK Silvan Shalom who receives the interior ministry and MK Gila Gamliel who will be the minister for gender and minority equality, and the advancement of youth and pensioners.

Another controversial addition to the line-up is Jewish Home's Ayelet Shaked as Justice Minister. Shaked has previous provoked outrage for endorsing an article by former Netanyahu speechwriter Uri Elitzur describing Palestinian children as “little snakes” and calling for their mothers to be killed.

She has also been subjected to sexist abuse for her looks: after her appointment to the ministry, former cabinet minister and Knesset member Joseph Paritsky wrote on his Facebook page, "Finally, we have a justice minister worthy of being featured on a calendar in an auto repair shop." His comments led to a chorus of disapproval, including from left-wing activists who would rarely defend Shaked in any other setting.

Overall, said Lovatt, the coalition was a victory for the "annexationists" with Bennett, Shaked, Hotovely and others all firm supporters of annexing area C of the occupied West Bank, which is currently already under full Israeli control.

The result is that it would be "harder for Europe to continue this fiction that there is a viable peace process."